Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
But 1378 proved to be a turning point in Wycliffe’s life. Shortly after the convocation of the bishops Wycliffe underwent what was almost a conversion. He was no longer interested in the politics of the realm, nor in helping promote the cause of the king and the landowners in their battle with the papacy. It seems as if, under God’s leading through the Spirit of Christ, he began to see that the evils in the Romish Church were, after all, not primarily evils in practice, but evils rooted in the false doctrines which Rome had adopted over the years. And so he began to concentrate his labors on the investigation of Scripture and the development of the truths of Scripture. Through strange and remarkable ways, God had preserved him from the fury of the Romish Church and from almost certain death at her hands for yet greater things.
It may be also that another incident in his life was used by God to bring about this conversion. About this same time, Wycliffe became desperately ill, ill unto death. The friars and monks were sure he was going to die; and so they sent a delegation to him under a hypocritical pretense of seeking his spiritual welfare – while nothing would have delighted them more than that he die. They attempted to force him to recant all he had written and to make peace with the church. Though desperately ill, in sheer exasperation Wycliffe finally managed, with some help from a servant, to raise himself upon the bed. Glaring at the assorted friars and monks gathered about him, he assured them not only that he was going to recover from his illness, but that the Lord would spare him to do yet more harm to their evil cause. With these words he drove them from the room.
God did spare him. And God did spare him for yet greater things.
To turn his attention to doctrinal matters was no easy thing for Wycliffe to do, for there was a large price to pay for it. Because he refused to involve himself any longer in the affairs of the realm and in the battle to keep England’s wealth from flowing into papal coffers, those who were only interested in this controversy with Rome lost interest in Wycliffe. First he lost the popularity of the people. Then the Duke of Gaunt was no longer interested in protecting him. And, finally, even his colleagues in Oxford refused to rise to his defense.
In 1381 the Peasants’ Uprising occupied the attention of the nation, and very little effort was made to silence Wycliffe. But on May 17, 1382 a council of bishops met in London under the prodding of the pope to consider what to do with the pestilential teachings of John Wycliffe. Just as the council was beginning its meetings a rare and unusual earthquake struck London, causing many walls to collapse and stones to rain down from buildings on the streets. Wycliffe interpreted this to mean that the judgment of God was upon the council met together to condemn him; but the archbishop assured the assembly that they should continue with their deliberations because the earthquake was proof that the awful teaching of Wycliffe had seeped into the ground and that now the earth had belched to rid itself of these foul doctrines. This council was, from that time on, known as the Earthquake Council.
The council succeeded in condemning Wycliffe, but did not dare to execute him. It prevailed upon Oxford to expel him, which also Oxford did, though reluctantly. And so John Wycliffe retired to his parish in Lutterworth where he spent the rest of his days preaching, teaching, and developing his theology.
It is really quite amazing how clearly John Wycliffe saw the truth almost 200 years before the Reformation.
One great advantage which he had was access to a Bible in Oxford which, more and more with the passing of the years, attracted his attention and study. Another great advantage was two excellent teachers in his early years of study.
One of these teachers was a man by the name of Grosseteste, who hated and fought bitterly against the corruption of the church. At one time he wrote prophetically: “To follow a pope who rebels against the will of Christ is to separate from Christ and his body; and if ever the time should come when all men follow an erring pontiff, then will be the great apostasy . . . and Rome will be the cause of an unprecedented schism.” When the powerful Pope Innocent ordered Grosseteste to make his infant nephew a canon of Lincoln cathedral, Grosseteste flatly refused, with words which ring today in every church: “After the sin of Lucifer there is none more opposed to the gospel than that which ruins souls by giving them a faithless minister. Bad pastors are the cause of unbelief, heresy and disorder.”
Another excellent teacher which Wycliffe was given was Thomas Bradwardine, who because of his brilliance was called “Doctor Profundus” (the profound doctor). While able in philosophy and mathematics, he was above all a student of the Scriptures. It was Bradwardine who led Wycliffe to know the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God in grace over against all the Pelegianism in the Romish church. Bradwardine taught his students the grace of God as determinative in salvation, and he opposed fiercely the doctrine of the free will of man. In fact, he taught these doctrines as they applied also to election and predestination.
As Wycliffe developed his theology, he saw clearly many truths which were not to become fully the possession of the church until the days of Luther and Calvin. Some of the more important ones are worthwhile to list. Wycliffe was the first in centuries to teach the absolute authority of the Scriptures, over against the Romish error of the authority of the church. Wycliffe did battle too with Rome’s doctrine that the church was the Romish hierarchy and institute. He taught instead (in a major breakthrough) that the church was the body of Christ and was composed only of the elect. It was in this connection that he also taught the truths of sovereign election and reprobation. Wycliffe opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation (something which particularly aroused the fury of Rome). He taught a spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – although he was not very clear on what this meant. He repudiated the practices of Rome such as indulgences, the merit of pilgrimages, penance, etc. He denied that the church had the power to forgive sins and insisted that forgiveness came only from Christ. These were doctrines which, almost 200 years later, became the foundation of the Reformation.
Wycliffe also put his teachings into practice. Beginning at Oxford, but continuing especially after he left Oxford for Lutterworth, Wycliffe began a translation of Scripture which he completed before his death. Although he did not know Scripture in its original languages, and translated Scripture from the Latin Vulgate, he gave a remarkably accurate translation which enabled the common people to hear the Scriptures in their language. We include here a few verses of his translation of Genesis 1 – in the old English which he used.
In the firste made God of nougt heuene and erthe. The erthe forsothe was veyn with ynee and void, and derknessis weren vpon the face of the see; and the Spiryt of God was born vpon the watrys. And God seide, Be maad ligt; and maad is ligt. And God sawg ligt, that it was good, and deuydid [divided] ligt fro derknessis; an clepide [called] ligt, day and derknessis, nygt. And maad is euen and moru [mom], o day. Seide forsothe God, Be maad a firmament in the myddel of watres, and dyuyde it watres from watrys.
It is difficult for us to imagine how these simple and familiar words must have thrilled the hearts of thousands when they heard them for the first time.
The translating of the Scriptures was also extremely dangerous, because the church had forbidden that the Scriptures be put into the language of the common people. Nevertheless, even though printing had not been invented, many copies must have been made laboriously by hand, for there are still nearly 170 hand-copied Wycliffe Bibles extant.
Wycliffe believed strongly in the importance of preaching, something almost unheard of in his times in the decay of the Romish Church. He not only preached in his parish, but already in Oxford he began to train preachers to go out among the people with the gospel. He continued this while in Lutterworth and, arming them with a copy of Scripture or a part of it, taught them to expound the Word of God to the people. These traveling preachers became known as Lollards. While they were severely persecuted, they continued after Wycliffe’s death and preserved his teachings until the Reformation finally broke upon England in the mid-1500s.
Although Wycliffe suffered a stroke when about 50 years old, he partially recovered from it and continued his writing, preaching, teaching) and the training of his beloved Lollards.
Finally, because the prelates in England seemed unable to do anything about Wycliffe, the pope himself summoned Wycliffe to Rome for trial. But Wycliffe had suffered his stroke and wrote a letter of decline. He suffered two more strokes, the last one in the pulpit, and finally left this life on December 31, 1384.
Schaff includes this description of Wycliffe in his History of the Christian Church:
Wyclif was spare, and probably never of robust health, but he was not an ascetic. He was fond of a good meal. In temper he was quick, in mind clear, in moral character unblemished. Towards his enemies he was sharp, but never coarse or ribald. William Thorpe, a young contemporary standing in the court of Archbishop Arundel, bore testimony that “he was emaciated in body and well-nigh destitute of strength, and in conduct most innocent. Very many of the chief men in England conferred with him, loved him dearly, wrote down his sayings and followed his manner of life.”1
Chaucer wrote his famous “Canterbury Tales” about this time and included a section about Wycliffe. It is all the more forcible because Chaucer, a good Roman Catholic, had some biting words to say about friars and monks. We include this again in Old English.
A good man was ther of religioun
And was a poure persoun of a toun
But riche he was of holy thoght and werk.
He was also a lemed man, a clerk
That Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche:
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benygne he was and wonder diligent
And in adversitee ful patient . . .
Wyd was his parisshe and houses fer asonder,
[the people to whom he ministered were widely scattered]
But he ne left nat for reyn ne thonder,
In siknesse nor in meschief to visite
the ferreste [furthest] in his parisshe,
muche and lite [rich and poor],
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.
This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf [gave]
That first he wroghte and afterward he taughte;
Out of the gospel he those wordes caughte [took].
John Wycliffe was a great man of God. In the all-wise providence of God the Reformation of the 16th century would have been impossible without his work. He is the morning star indeed.
So hated was he by Rome that, although Rome was restrained in his lifetime from harming him, the church could not let his bones rest in peace. On October 9, 1427, on order of the Council of Constance (the same Council that burned John Huss at the stake), Wycliffe’s body was exhumed, his bones burned, and the ashes strewn on the River Swift.
A later chronicler described this event in eloquent words.
They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighboring brook running hard by. Thus the brook conveyed his ashes into the Avon, the Avon into the Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas and they into the main ocean. And so the ashes of Wyclif are symbolic of his doctrine, which is now spread throughout the world.2
1 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. V, p. 324.
2 .Quoted from Schaff, p. 325.