John Wycliffe – English Bible Translator
Quote: “It is not necessary to go either to Rome or to Avignon in order to seek a decision from the pope, since the triune God is everywhere. Our pope is Christ.” (John Wycliffe, De simonia, de apostasia, de blasphemia; On the Church, 1378-1379)
Twenty-nine years after John Wycliffe (c.1324 – 1384) died, his bones were dug up and burned, a retroactive rebuke to the “stiff-necked heretic.” At the time of his death, a Catholic leader had written a scathing indictment, calling him an “instrument of the devil” and “an enemy of the church.”
Who was this man who drew forth such vitriol? To later Protestants he would be hailed as “the Morningstar of the Reformation.” During his lifetime, he committed himself to Scripture translation in the “vulgar” language and denied purgatory and the validity of indulgences. He also articulated a theological framework that rejected the efficacy of the Mass and the dogma of transubstantiation. He was a scholar and a trained theologian whose direct link to sixteenth-century Reformers is very clear. Born into a large landed family in Yorkshire, England, Wycliffe attended local schools, and by his early twenties was a student at Oxford, where he received a broad education in science, mathematics, philosophy, and biblical studies. A brilliant scholar, he quickly moved from student to tutor to director of Canterbury Hall, and he became a Doctor of Theology in his early forties, lecturing and later serving as a parish priest in Lutterworth.
Wycliffe’s demand for religious reform was intrinsically tied to politics and commerce as well as to foreign policy. His first book (containing eighteen theses) argued that in temporal matters the king and parliament have authority over the church and its clergy, including the pope.
The new ideas created excitement among Wycliffe’s students, and the movement spread like wildfire. Opposing him, however, were monks and most of the English clerics, who dependended on the papacy. His most illustrious opponent was Pope Gregory XI himself, who issued a bull against Wycliffe and his eighteen theses, denouncing the professor’s dangerous teachings. The pope angrily laid out his case against him, warning Oxford to be rid of him.
Summoned to appear before leading bishops in Lambeth, Wycliffe arrived, accompanied by a boisterous parade of supporters, including Joan of Kent, the king’s mother. He was ordered to desist teaching heresy, but he refused to be silenced, finding the pen more powerful than the tongue. Insisting that Christ, not the pope, is head of the church, he argued that it is not “necessary to go either to Rome or to Avignon in order to seek a decision from the pope since the triune God is everywhere.” He later equated the pope with the antichrist.
Wycliffe’s crowning achievement was the English Bible; he argued that the only way Christians could truly follow Christ was through reading Scripture in their own tongue. Such ideas, however, threatened orthodoxy. “The jewel of the clergy,” clerics railed, “has become the toy of the laity.” Distributing the newly translated Scriptures were barefoot itinerant “poor priests” scorned as Lollards. They were persecuted, and Bibles were burned. But the movement continued to spread.
Both large and small landowners supported the secularization of church property, but when Wycliffe began meddling with religious rituals and dogma, many were uneasy. Church tradition was centuries old in England. Messing with the Mass was simply not tolerated. But that was exactly what he did. In 1380, just prior to the peasants’ rebellion (which he strongly opposed), he issued a provocative challenge to the doctrine of transubstantiation, attacking Thomas Aquinas for what he deemed heresy—that the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. He maintained that the church is the body of Christ, made up of elect only, all others being reprobate. He also rejected merit for indulgences, penance, pilgrimages, and confession, since only Christ forgives sin.
England was not ready for such a thoroughgoing reformation, however. In 1382 Wycliffe was ordered to appear before a synod in Oxford. Poor health and lack of concern among members of parliament worked in his favor. He was permitted to return to his parish, where he died two years later. His followers, the Lollards, carried on as an underground movement.