Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Background to the Wycliffe Bible
English-speaking Christians living in the twenty-first century take for granted having a Bible, and having a Bible in their own language. We all have Bibles, many Bibles, Bibles that are readily accessible. We have Bibles in our homes, at school, at the workplace, in our car or pickup truck. Bibles are available to us in our church pews for worship on the Lord’s Day. Even the children can follow along as the minister reads the Scripture portion from which the text of his sermon is taken. We carry our Bibles with us to the Bible study societies that we attend during the week. We read the Bible around our tables for family devotions. And we make reading the Bible a part of our daily personal devotions. If we want another Bible or want to replace a worn-out Bible, we go to the local Christian bookstore and buy a new Bible at a modest cost.
But it has not always been so in the history of the church. There was a time when the Bible was not readily available. There was a time when the Bible that was available was not written in the language of the common people but in a language that only scholars and clerics could understand. There was a day when the ordinary believer could not afford to purchase a Bible. That was the way it was in the days prior to the Reformation. That was the way it was in fourteenth century England. That was the way it was, at least, until the introduction of the Wycliffe Bible, the very first complete translation of the Scriptures into the English language.
The first complete English translation of the Bible is credited to John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384). Wycliffe is often referred to as the “morning star of the Reformation.” This is due to his precursory work that paved the way for the great Reformation of the sixteenth century. Many of the doctrines set forth and defended by the Reformers, including the solas, were articulated by Wycliffe nearly 150 years before the Reformation. Especially did Wycliffe anticipate the Reformation by his insistence on the supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures.
Wycliffe did most of his life’s work in association with Oxford University. For almost all of his adult life, for some thirty-five years, he was a part of the university, first as an outstanding student and then as a distinguished member of its faculty.
In 1378, while a professor at Oxford, Wycliffe published a treatise entitled “Concerning the Authority of the Pope.” In this treatise he maintained the sole authority of the Scriptures. The judgment of true doctrine, according to Wycliffe, was to be made on the basis of the testimony of Scripture alone. Even the authority of the pope, he insisted, did not supersede, nor might it be raised up alongside of, the authority of the Bible.
This treatise was followed by another published in 1380 entitled “On the Truth of Holy Scripture.” Once again, Wycliffe defended the supreme authority as well as the sufficiency of the Scriptures. In addition, he expressed the need for the translation of the Scriptures into the English language, the language of the people he served. This was something novel! Other opponents of the papacy and the evils that were rife in the Roman Catholic Church of that day had appealed to the Bible as the ultimate authority. But Wycliffe went further. He insisted on the right of every Christian to have, to know, to read, and to study the Scriptures for himself. It was unsatisfactory that only the educated who knew the Latin language could have access to the Scriptures. The church as a whole must have the Scriptures, if the Scriptures were going to function as the supreme authority in the church—such was Wycliffe’s conviction.
It is without doubt that Wycliffe’s views were the impetus for the translation of the Bible into the English language. Not only did his views justify such a translation, but they were the immediate stimulus that brought the translation into existence.
The Appearance of the Wycliffe Bible
Scholars debate whether Wycliffe himself had any direct role in the work of translating the Bible into English. Most are of the opinion that Wycliffe did not actually do any of the translating, although a number of scholars take the position that Wycliffe translated at least part of the New Testament. No one debates the fact that he inspired the translation and to some extent superintended its production. Wycliffe’s contemporaries, both friend and foe, attribute the new version to the Oxford scholar. There were, in fact, two complete versions of what has come to be known as the Wycliffe Bible. The lion’s share of the work of translation is credited to two of his pupils and colleagues, John Purvey and Nicholas of Hereford. Both of these men were made to suffer because of their involvement with the Wycliffe Bible.
The first version of the new Bible appeared in 1382. It was an extremely literal, and therefore wooden, translation. Natural English word order and idiom were sacrificed for the sake of a literal translation of the text. The second version appeared around 1388. It was, for the most part, a complete revision of the earlier version. The translation was much smoother, more idiomatic, and therefore much more readable.¹
There are several features of the Wycliffe Bible that are worth noting. To begin with, it was the first complete Bible in the English language. This is its abiding distinction. Prior to this, portions of Scripture had been translated into English, usually as a part of the liturgy or as a part of some other literary production. But never before had the entire Bible, both the Old and the New Testament, been set into English. For the first time, English-speaking Christians were able to read the Bible in their native tongue.
A second feature of the Wycliffe Bible was that every copy had to be handwritten. The task of translation was monumental in itself. But the task of publishing was even greater. These were the days before the invention of the printing press. Each new Bible had to be painstakingly written out in longhand. This made the work of translation all the more daunting. The popularity of the Wycliffe Bible, attested by the numerous copies that have survived to the present, indicates the eagerness with which hundreds of hands must have undertaken a very demanding work.
The third main feature of the Wycliffe Bible was that it was a translation of the Latin Vulgate. This was the version produced by Jerome in the fourth century. It was the version approved by the papacy and used in the churches and schools of the day. Thus, the Wycliffe Bible was a translation of a translation. It was not a translation of the original Hebrew and Greek. This would have to wait until the work of Tyndale and Coverdale.
Opposition to the Wycliffe Bible
From the very beginning there was opposition, heated opposition, to the Wycliffe Bible. A number of factors explain this opposition. For one thing, there was the thinking that the Scriptures were only for the learned (the doctors in the universities) and the clergy. The uneducated laity, it was thought, were ill equipped to understand the Scriptures. Putting the Scriptures into their hands would undoubtedly lead to a host of misunderstandings and false teachings. Many equated the translation of the Scriptures into the common language with casting the pearls of the gospel to the swine.
Opposition to the translation of the Scriptures also arose out of a reverence for the Latin language. In scholarly circles the Latin language was regarded with utmost dignity, whereas vernacular English was viewed as vulgar, even profane. To reduce the Latin of the Vulgate Bible to common English was considered a travesty.
Finally, there was opposition to the new English Bible because it was not a church Bible. The Vulgate had been sanctioned by the church. The church had supervised its production. And the church had finally approved the finished product and recommended it for use. No such supervision and recommendation attended the first English translation of the Bible.
It did not take long for those who opposed the Wycliffe Bible to vent their anger over its appearance. Leading the opposition against the new translation was the English Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. In 1411, in a letter written to Pope John XXIII, he wrote:
This pestilent and wretched John Wyclif, of cursed memory, that son of the old serpent … endeavoured by every means to attack the very faith and sacred doctrine of Holy Church, devising—to fill up the measure of his malice—the expedient of a new translation of the Scriptures into the mother tongue.²
In 1415 the Wycliffe Bible was officially condemned and publicly burned. It was forbidden anyone to buy or possess it. Those who nevertheless did and were caught, suffered fines, imprisonment, torture, and excommunication.
Notwithstanding ecclesiastical and civil prohibitions, the Wycliffe Bible was popularly received. Thousands risked the consequences of discovery and sacrificed large sums in order to possess a copy of the new English translation. Its widespread reception can, to a great extent, be credited to the energetic efforts of the Lollards, the “poor priests,” who went forth, with Wycliffe’s Bible under their arms, bringing the Word of God to the common people. Over 250 manuscripts of the Wycliffe Bible survive, a greater number of copies by far than any other surviving medieval English text. This is a clear indication of the total number of copies that must have been made and the widespread use to which they were put. And all this in spite of the threats of the papacy and regular burning of banned books. Such was the hunger for the Word of God among believers in England. No risk was too great to take, no amount of money too much to spend, in order to have a copy of the Wycliffe Bible.
The Influence of the Wycliffe Bible
For some 150 years the Wycliffe Bible wastheBible of English-speaking people. It was the Bible in use throughout England at the time of the introduction of the Reformation. Only after the Reformation and the invention of the printing press was the Wycliffe Bible gradually replaced, first by Tyndale’s New Testament in 1526, and then by Coverdale’s first complete printed Bible in 1535. Even after these Bibles were introduced, many English believers continued to prefer the more familiar Wycliffe Bible.
Without doubt, the Wycliffe Bible exerted an influence on the King James (Authorized) Version of 1611. This is our Bible, the Bible we use for public worship, as well as in our homes and schools and for personal devotions. We know that the translators of the KJV had the Wycliffe Bible at their elbows as they worked on their new translation. A good deal of the language of the KJV is borrowed from the language of the Wycliffe Bible. Familiar expressions like “compass sea and land,” “firstfruits,” “strait gate,” “son of perdition,” “enter thou into the joy of thy Lord,” are expressions that first appeared in the Wycliffe Bible. Whole sections in the KJV, like the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 and Jesus’ well-known words in John 14, are similar in language to the translation found in the Wycliffe Bible.³ The last part of Romans 8, with modernized spelling, illustrates how closely the KJV was patterned after the Wycliffe Bible.
What then shall we say to these things? If God for us, who is against us? The which also spared not his own son, but for us all betook him, how also gave he not to us all things with him? Who shall accuse against the chosen men of God? It is God that justifieth, who is it that condemneth? It is Jesus Christ that was dead, yea, the which rose again, the which is on the right half of God, and the which prayeth for us. Who then shall depart us from the charity of Christ? Tribulation, or anguish, or hunger, or nakedness, or persecution, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For we be slain all the day for thee; we be guessed [reckoned] as sheep for the slaughter. But in all these things we overcome, for him that loved us. But I am certain, that neither death, neither life, neither angels, neither principalities, neither virtues, neither present things, neither things to coming, neither strength, neither height, neither deepness, neither none other creature may depart us from the charity of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The influence of the Wycliffe Bible on the English church of that day, as well as the enduring influence on the history of the English-speaking church, can hardly be overstated. Having the Bible in their own language not only prepared the English people for the Reformation, but assured under the grace of God the reception of Reformation doctrines. Still today we owe a debt of gratitude to Wycliffe and the men inspired by Wycliffe’s teaching. Perhaps it is too much to say that we would not have the Bible in English if it had not been for John Wycliffe. It is not, however, saying too much to say that we would not have the Bible that we do have apart from Wycliffe’s influence.
¹ Anyone interested in reading this translation can access it on the world wide web. The entire Wycliffe translation can be found at: www. sbible.boom.ru/wyc/wycle.htm.
² Quoted by Henry Hargreaves in The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2, 388.
³ David Fountain, John Wycliffe: The Dawn of the Reformation, p. 48ff.