Not least art thou, thou little Bethlehem
In Judah, for in thee the Lord was born;
Nor thou in Britain, little Lutterworth,
Least, for in thee the word was born again.
Alfred Tennyson, “Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham” (1880)
This verse, penned by the famed Alfred Lord Tennyson, captures the significance of the “Gospel Doctor,” John Wycliffe, and one of his most important contributions to the church. Just as it was in a little village in Judea that the eternal Word became flesh, so also was it in a small town in England (Lutterworth) that Wycliffe and his followers produced the first English Bible.
But Wycliffe’s Bible is not the focus here. Instead, we dig deeper to expose his view of the Bible itself, his theology of Scripture. It was his understanding of the nature of the Bible that was the impetus for his translation into the language of the people. And it was the rich fountain from which flowed all his other work as a pre-Reformer.
But, first, who was this man?
John was born either in the year 1324 or 1330 to parents of some social standing who held property near the town of Wycliffe-on-Tees. His childhood years are shrouded in the impenetrable mists of history. One of the few tidbits of information that has survived is the fact that the Wycliffe family manor was under the control of John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III. How much interaction young Wycliffe had with the prince is unknown, but later he owed his life to the protection provided by the prince.
John was a precocious lad, and about the time he turned fifteen he enrolled in the illustrious University of Oxford to study theology. There, in addition to his studies, two important events helped mold him. First, he came under the influence of Thomas Bradwardine, a renowned Oxford master. Bradwardine was a staunch Augustinian and had a great impact on the younger scholar, so much so that he was been called Wycliffe’s “spiritual father.”1 The second event was the onslaught of the Black Death which ravaged England and brought his “father” to the grave. Witnessing death on every side, Wycliffe became much more serious-minded.
Although he received his B.A. in 1356, Wycliffe did not leave Oxford. He continued his studies, earning two more degrees, while he also gradually transitioned into the role of professor. Wycliffe was primarily a scholar, but he did preach from time to time in various parishes, including Lutterworth, as a way of funding his studies.
Wycliffe burst on to the public scene in the late 1360s in a political capacity. War with France had recently been renewed, and the English found themselves in dire financial straits. The English clergy were exceedingly wealthy, but were protected from taxation. In addition, much of England’s money was siphoned out of the country to the pope, who at that time resided amongst the hated French. With a reputation for being the Oxford scholar par excellence, Wycliffe was called upon by the higher powers to argue the case against the pope and his underlings.
Doing so landed him in hot water. In 1377, he was hauled before William Courtenay, bishop of London, to give an account of his teachings. At the trial, he was ably defended by his patron, John of Gaunt, and he walked free.
It was at this time that a subtle but important shift took place in Wycliffe’s labors. No longer was he concerned with politics, but he launched into doctrinal reform. He would spend the next six years writing voluminously to correct the doctrinal errors in the papacy.
At first he was able to do so from the safe confines of his beloved Oxford. But Courtenay, now the Archbishop of Canterbury, convoked a Synod to examine him again. During the course of the Synod an earthquake shook the building where they were meeting. Courtenay interpreted the rumbling as the earth relieving herself of Wycliffe’s errors: “This earthquake portends the purging of the kingdom from heresies.”2 Wycliffe saw it differently. He read it as a sign of God’s judgment upon the Roman Catholic Church.
The end result of the “Earthquake Synod” was the condemnation of Wycliffe and his views, but no attempt was made on his life. They did, however, take what was dear to his heart: his position at Oxford. Wycliffe was expelled and forced to retreat to Lutterworth. Wycliffe, on receiving the news, was unapologetic: “With whom, think you, you are contending? With an old man on the brink of the grave? No, with truth. Truth which is stronger than you and will overcome you.”3
Wycliffe was on the brink of the grave. He had a stroke around that time, although he recovered sufficiently to carry on his work. But he was laid low two years later by another stroke while in the pulpit. He died a few days later, on December 31, 1384.
So great was his influence that Wycliffe’s enemies did not cease to attack him after his death. In 1415, the Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe as a “notorious heretic” and ordered his body to be exhumed and burned. The order was finally carried out on October 8, 1427, and his ashes were strewn over the River Swift.
They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into Swift, a neighboring brook running hard by. Thus this brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wicliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed the world over.4
His Doctrine of Scripture
Just prior to Wycliffe’s death, the first edition of his English translation of the Bible was sent out from Lutterworth. Although others were involved in its production, it was largely the work of the “Gospel Doctor” and was grounded in his understanding of the Bible itself.
First, Wycliffe taught the supreme authority of the Bible (sola Scriptura). According to one historian, Wycliffe’s “chief service to the people…was his assertion of the supreme authority of the Bible for clergy and laymen alike.”5 “As the person of one author is to another,” Wycliffe wrote, “so is the merit of one book compared to another; now it is a doctrine of the faith that Christ is infinitely superior to every other man, and therefore His book, or Holy Scripture…stands in a similar relation to every other writing which can be named.”6
This was a controversial position. Rome taught that the Scriptures have authority, but at best an authority on par with the authority of popes, church councils, and tradition. Wycliffe disagreed. The highest authority for the child of God is the Bible. It is the ultimate standard for faith and life. “Men ought to desire only the truth and freedom of the holy Gospel, and to accept man’s Law and ordinances only in as much as they have been grounded in holy Scriptures.”7
The Bible has this kind of authority because it is God’s book, and therefore has the authority of God Himself. To put it differently, Wycliffe believed the authority of the Scriptures because he believed that they are divinely and infallibly inspired. “And, since these words are God’s words,” he wrote, “they should be taken as believed.”8 Elsewhere he said, “It is impossible for any part of the Holy Scriptures to be wrong. In Holy Scripture is all the truth.”9 Because the Scriptures are God’s infallible word to His people, they bear supreme authority.
Second, Wycliffe believed that the Scriptures are clear or perspicuous. This too flew in the face of current Romish doctrine. Rome held that the Scriptures are difficult to understand, particularly for the laity who are dependent upon the clergy to understand the Bible. But Wycliffe taught that the Scriptures are generally clear and easily understood, not just for the men of the cloth but for the men and women of the pew also. The Scriptures are “open to understanding of simple men, as to the points that have been most needful to salvation.”10 There are certainly difficult passages, but the main points of salvation are clear.
This has important implications for how the Bible is interpreted. Because the Bible is generally clear and understandable, those passages that are more difficult have to be interpreted in the light of the whole of Scripture and those passages that are more easily understood. Wycliffe advanced the reformation principle of Scriptura Scripturae interpres: “In Holy Scripture is all the truth; one part of Scripture explains another.”11
Third, Wycliffe taught the necessity of the Bible. In order for a man to be saved, he must know God. And in order to know God, the Scriptures are absolutely necessary. Apart from it there is no knowledge and no salvation. “To be ignorant of the Scripture is the same thing as to be ignorant of Christ. In the Bible is the salvation of men contained.”12
Fourth, Wycliffe believed the sufficiency of the Bible. The Scriptures are sufficient for salvation, without all the external rituals of the church. God has revealed enough in His Word for us to be saved and to live a life that is pleasing to Him. The words of God “will quicken man, give them life, new life, more than other words.”13 “O marvelous power of the Divine Seed! which overpowers strong men in arms, softens hard hearts, and renews and changes into divine men, men who had been brutalized by sins, and departed infinitely far from God.”14
Wycliffe’s view of Scripture had immediate and powerful effects. Not only did it prompt him to translate the Bible into the vernacular so that the common people could read it; it was also the impetus for him to send out a band of itinerant preachers (Lollards) who went up and down the countryside proclaiming the Word of God. In addition, his understanding of the Bible formed the basis for a number of important doctrinal positions that he took. He taught that the church is the company of the elect, rejected transubstantiation, and opposed the authority of the papacy, to name a few.
Wycliffe was a monumental figure in the history of the church, and his work was used by God to prepare the way for the Reformation. Because of this influence, Wycliffe has been called the “Morning Star of the Reformation” and the “Grandfather of the Reformation.” This is the case because Wycliffe was concerned not merely with practical reforms in the church, but with doctrinal reforms. And this was based on his view of the Scriptures, a view which became one of the fundamental principles of the Reformation 150 years later.
The significance of Wycliffe and his teachings is seen in an old Reformation woodcut. In it the artist carved the figures of three men. The first man sparks a fire, the second man fans the flame, and the third man carries the torch. The three men are John Wycliffe, John Hus, and Martin Luther. A direct line can be traced from Wycliffe, across the English Channel to Bohemia and Hus, and from there to Germany and Luther and the Reformation. Wycliffe sparked the Reformation, Hus fanned the flames, and Luther carried the torch.
As those called today to carry that torch, we give thanks to God for the man He used to provide the spark. And may He give to us today the same commitment to and love for the Word.
1 Augustus Toplady, quoted in Russell J. Dykstra, “Thomas Bradwardine: Forgotten Medieval Augustinian (3),” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal 35.1 (November 2001):25.
2 Courtenay, quoted in Fountain, Wycliffe, 39.
3 Wycliffe, quoted in Fountain, Wycliffe, 42.
4 Thomas Fuller, quoted in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 6:325.
5 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 6:338.
6 Wycliffe, quoted in Steven J. Lawson, Pillars of Grace (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), 362.
7 Wycliffe, quoted in Donald L. Brake, A Visual History of the English Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 50.
8 Wycliffe, quoted in Fountain, Wycliffe, 63.
9 Wycliffe, quoted in Fountain, Wycliffe, 48.
10 Wycliffe, quoted in Brake, English Bible, 50.
11 Wycliffe, quoted in Lawson, Pillars, 362.
12 Wycliffe, quoted in Ronald L. Cammenga, “‘Ere Many Years, the Boy that Driveth the Plow…’: The History of the King James Version,” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal 45.1 (November 2011):40. 13 Wycliffe, quoted in Fountain, Wycliffe, 63.
14 Wycliffe, quoted in Fountain, Wycliffe, 63-64.