Rev. Koole is pastor of Grandville Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
In the celestial firmament of the New Testament church age some luminaries have burned more brightly than others. Amongst these “brighter luminaries” John Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384) of England deserves to be numbered.
He is universally acknowledged as “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” And not without merit. Through his careful study of God’s Word he arrived at doctrinal positions (and criticism of Rome’s major errors) that anticipated and prepared the way for Luther and the sixteenth century Reformers. No less a pre-Reformer than John Hus of Bohemia was deeply indebted to Wycliffe for his own doctrinal stands and insights (re predestination, justification by faith alone, and the error of transubstantiation).
But not only was Wycliffe a forerunner of the great Reformation, he was also one of those used by God to preserve His truth, and thereby His saints and church, through the dark and evil times known as the Middle Ages.
John was born in northern Yorkshire, near the village of Wiclif-on-Tees (hence his name).
Little is known about his youth, other than that, by God’s good wisdom, during Wycliffe’s youth the area of his family’s estate came under the rule and patronage of Prince John of Gaunt, a son of King Edward III. Duke John of Lancaster (as he would be known) would prove to be Wycliffe’s sponsor and, in time, protector as well. This was a most providential arrangement, without doubt keeping Wycliffe from an untimely death. It was Wycliffe who, through his bold, biblical teachings, challenged Rome’s errors and exposed Rome’s evils as up to this time few had dared, arousing the fury of her prelates. It was King Edward III’s own son who would keep Wycliffe’s enemies at bay.
His intellectual gifts were recognized early on, and in his mid teens he was enrolled in Oxford, the leading English university of his day. In 1356 he was accepted as a Fellow of Merton College (one of the many that made up Oxford U.), and in 1360 was elected as Master of Balliol for a year. From this seat of learning and influence it did not take long for Wycliffe to receive recognition as the foremost philosopher and then theologian of his day, his fame through his writings spreading through the whole of Europe. He would end his days as the rector and pastor of the Lutterworth parish (1374 onwards).
It was while at Oxford that he became familiar with the writings of Augustine, coming under the influence of his older contemporary Bradwardine, who was a professor at Oxford and a staunch Augustinian. The godly Bradwardine would die of the Black Plague in 1349 (which wasted at least a third of the population of England and Europe, it is said), but not before introducing Wycliffe to the value of searching the Scriptures. These God used for Wycliffe’s thoroughgoing conversion to biblical authority and truth, and to salvation all of sovereign free grace.
We could do worse than to quote the popular (and unbelieving, humanistic) historian Will Durant for a most interesting and insightful summary of Wycliffe’s work and theological focus. Durant’s very unabashed anti-Calvinistic bias puts Wycliffe’s life’s work and theological emphasis into perspective.
He was ordained to the priesthood, and received from the popes various benefices or livings in parish churches, but continued to teach at the University. His literary activity was alarming. He wrote vast Scholastic treatises on metaphysics, theology, and logic, two volumes of polemics, four of sermons, and a medley of short but influential tracts, including the famous Tractatus de civili dominio. Most of his compositions were in graceless and impenetrable Latin that should have made them harmless to any but grammarians. But hidden among these obscurities were explosive ideas that almost severed Britain from the Roman Church 155 years before Henry VIII, plunged Bohemia into civil war, and anticipated nearly all the reform ideas of John Huss and Martin Luther.
Putting his worse foot forward, and surrendering to Augustine’s logic and eloquence, Wyclif built his creed upon that awful doctrine of predestination which was to remain even to our day the magnet and solvent of Protestant theology. God, wrote Wyclif, gives His grace to whomever He wishes, and has predestined each individual, an eternity before birth, to be lost or saved through all eternity. Good works do not win salvation, but they indicate that he who does them has received divine grace and is one of the elect. We act according to the disposition that God has allotted to us: to invert Heraclitus, our fate is our character. Only Adam and Eve had a free will; by their disobedience they lost it for themselves and for their posterity.
God is sovereign lord of us all, the allegiance that we owe Him is direct, as is the oath of every Englishman to the king, not indirect through allegiance to a subordinate lord, as in feudal France. Hence the relationship of man to God is direct, and requires no intermediary; any claim of Church or priest to be a necessary medium must be repelled. In this sense all Christians are priests, and need no ordination. (The Story of Civilization, “The Reformation,” p. 31)
The unbelieving Durant could not avoid noting that what characterized this Wycliffe, a man of unquestionable courage and integrity, willing to oppose unrighteousness in the affairs of men, was the same doctrinal conviction that would characterize the other, later great Reformers, men of courage and integrity all, men such as Hus, Luther, and Calvin (and Augustine before them)—namely, faith in a predestinating God of sovereign free grace. And what Durant despises Wycliffe for, we love him.
About the only doctrines of importance that Wycliffe dealt with that Durant fails to mention in his resumé are the supreme authority of Scripture (vs. the tradition of mere men) and Wycliffe’s rejection of the error of transubstantiation (addressed by Wycliffe towards the end of his life).
In the affairs of men and for the salvation of His church, God’s timing is always exquisite. It is striking how often, just when the church needs a man of special gifts and character, God prepares and raises up such a man or men, and then sees to it that political, worldly circumstances are such that they can survive and function.
The simple fact is that historical circumstances in England contributed largely to Wycliffe’s being able to challenge Rome’s very doctrinal foundations in such explicit fashion without being silenced by the agents of Rome. When Wycliffe came on the scene, England’s nobles were in the process of trying to shake themselves free from the financial stranglehold Rome had upon the nation. More than a century earlier the weak and infamous King John had challenged the authority of Pope Innocent III and had lost, succeeding only in getting the whole nation placed under the dreaded interdict. In 1213, in order to persuade the Pope to lift the interdict, King John had pledged the realm of England to a heavy tribute, to be paid annually to papal coffers. Added to this was the practice of Rome to appoint whom she pleased to high ecclesiastical office in England, many of whom were foreigners, Frenchmen in fact. It was estimated that more English money went to the pope and absentee bishops residing in France than to the state or the king, and this at a time when England was at war with France. Her own money was being used to finance battles against her own English troops.
Understandably, an anti-clerical party arose in England at this time. And it was headed by none other than Prince John of Gaunt.
In 1333 the King, with Parliament’s backing, refused to pay the tribute any longer, and in 1351 the Parliament enacted the Statute of Provisors. This forbade Rome from installing any into various high ecclesiastical offices without the approval of the English parliament. And in that day and age bishops and cardinals commonly exercised authority in civil affairs as well, usually because they were of the nobility to begin with. This Act was, as one might expect, challenged by Rome. The anti-clerical party would look to Wycliffe to answer Rome’s challenge and refute her claim of divinely appointed authority, supposedly supreme even in matters pertaining to the state and civil affairs.
Wycliffe’s opposition to the evils of Rome and her clergy was well known by this time. He had witnessed firsthand the abuses of the clergy, especially of various mendicant orders—whose origin lay in vows of poverty, but who now brazenly compelled the common people to pay them large sums of money in return for various spiritual services, and had come to hold vast tracts of property. They were notorious for their greed, gluttony, and immorality. Wycliffe had taken the lead in inveighing against them with public words and various pamphlets.
In light of the Gospel record of Christ’s self-imposed poverty and the apostles’ disregard for worldly goods, Wycliffe began calling the church to divest itself of its vast holdings and property. He pointed out that God is the supreme ruler and ultimately owns all things, and then reasoned that those who are living in sin against God really forfeit all right to rightful possession at all. Especially this was true of the church and clergy who were supposed to represent the righteous God, but who were instead living in such unrighteousness and sin. Their very holding of property in such a state of guilt constituted sin.
Such words were music to the English monarchy’s ears.
In 1376 Wycliffe was sent as part of the King’s delegation to Bruges to argue the crown’s continued refusal to pay King John’s tribute to Rome anymore. From this point on, Wycliffe became the chief spokesman of the crown and nation, disputing the church’s authority over the State in temporal and civil affairs. He began to ask, who is this Bishop of Rome, self-proclaimed head of men, when in fact, according to Scripture, Christ is the one supreme head of the church and of all things? Kings and princes derived dominion (authority) from and were answerable to this Lord of all dominion alone, not to a self-appointed head of a corrupt church. He even went so far as to begin to preach that the church ought to begin to return property stolen by dishonest means and improper claims back to the crown and nation.
In early 1377 Wycliffe was summoned by Bishop Courtenay of London to answer to charges of heresy. Sir John of Gaunt appeared as well, and with him a retinue of soldiers. The bishops decided discretion was the better part of valor, and dismissed the proceedings. Back in Oxford, Wycliffe continued with greater vigor to declare that the state should consider itself supreme under Christ in temporal, secular affairs, and that priests and bishops should remove themselves from lordship in temporal and civil affairs, contenting themselves to living simply by means of contributions from the people. He was Protestant before its time.
In March of 1378, at the behest of a Papal Bull to arrest this heretic, Wycliffe was summoned once again to appear before an assembly of bishops, now at Lambeth. This time the Queen mother intervened with a letter, warning the Papal delegates of severe consequences should they dare condemn this man of God. So popular was Wycliffe amongst the commoners by this time that, hearing of Wycliffe’s arrest, a sizable crowd gathered in the streets. Should Wycliffe’s person be threatened, the bishops would answer to a mob reaction in the streets. Again the bishops dispersed, daring to declare nothing decisive.
That very month Pope Gregory XI died. Upon his death the great papal schism occurred, two popes chosen by two different bodies of Cardinals. One took up residence in Rome, the other in Avignon. For the time being the church had other things to occupy herself with than with heretics and kings who refused to pay tribute. Accordingly, Rome’s threat to the crown in England diminished for a time, and Wycliffe’s involvement with such matters as well.
Wycliffe’s own spiritual development did not end, however. It was about this time that he began to question the doctrine of Rome’s mass, transubstantiation, and the power it gave to mere, corrupt men. Here he put his finger on the heart and soul of Rome’s evil and error. Here, however, neither the crown nor most of the people were ready to follow. John of Gaunt urged him to leave the Eucharist alone. He refused. His popularity waned as a result.
In addition, it was at this time that social uprisings occurred in England, peasants rising up to demand rights before courts of law and for the right to hold property—if the clergy were guilty of stealing property from the nation, how much more so had this not been true of the nobility from the common man! And because the uprisings that occurred were led by men who quoted from the writings of Wycliffe, the nobility and property owners wasted no time in calling into question many of the teachings of this ‘radical reformer,’ this John of Wyclif.
The bishops were emboldened by the changing tide. Charges of heresy were once again filed against Wycliffe, various propositions were condemned by the council of bishops, and the chancellor of Oxford was commanded to forbid Wycliffe from further teaching. King Richard II, hard pressed to put down the social revolt from within, concurred, and ordered Wycliffe expelled from Oxford. He retired to Lutterworth.
It was in his last few years at Lutterworth, however, that Wycliffe proved most useful for the faithful in England. He set about, with assistance, to translate from the Latin the whole of the Scriptures into English for distribution to the people. And he organized a new order of men, preaching friars, who went about in simple black robes practicing what Wycliffe had taught, namely, that true servants of Christ ought to be teachers of God’s Word, going from village to village with the gospel, living in simplicity and piety of life. This they did with remarkable ‘success.’ The Lollards, as they would be known, would continue to teach God’s Word for some time after Wycliffe’s death, and have a reputation for godliness and humility that put the priests of Rome to shame. No less a writer than Chaucer, loyal son of Rome though he was, would write of these humble, pious preachers, expressing admiration for their true Christianity.
In late 1384 Pope Urban VI summoned Wycliffe to Rome to be tried for heresy yet again. But, as Durant puts it, “A different summons exceeded it in authority. On December 28, 1384, the ailing reformer suffered a paralytic stroke as he was attending Mass, and three days later he died” (ibid. p. 37).
Rome was not done with Wycliffe yet, however. Enraged by the spread of his teachings and that he who had defied her so often had escaped unscathed, Rome exhumed his bones in 1415, burned what was left of him, and cast the residue into a nearby stream. His writings were ordered to be gathered and burned as well. An act of frustration, proving yet again the vanity of the strivings of Hell against the elect and the truth of God. Because the truth of God trumpeted by Wycliffe lived (and still lives) on.
Thanks be to God for this man of courage and conviction in the starry firmament of His preachers and saints, a man used by God to prepare the way for greater things to follow.